Love the land? Then you have something in common with today’s farmer. And who is the modern farmer? You might be surprised. Find out who’s feeding us—and get inspired from their growing tips and little lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Only 2% of us feed and sustain the rest of us! And while there are some very large commercial farmers, it may astound you to learn that 97% of farms in North America are family-owned and family-run!
The 2023 issue of The Old Farmer’s Almanac salutes farmers across North America, featuring some inspiring stories! Farmers today must be creative entrepreneurs who must adjust to an ever-changing market to stay in business. Many are diversifying their business in unusual ways, whether it’s to generate additional income or help their community or just plain survival. All have one thing in common: They truly love working the land.
Life Water Gardens
Norway House, Manitoba
This very northern Canadian community is in perennial need of fresh vegetables. A Cree Nation, it’s surrounded by the bounties of fishing, trapping, and logging, but its cultural gardening history strays little beyond root vegetables. Any above-ground crop risks being nipped at –5°C (23°F) in the third week of June, and any remaining hope can be strangled with the same lows as early as September 5.
In a sub-arctic climate, Virginia Muswagon grows greens and herbs hydroponically year-round!
In 2019, exactly this kind of cold weather was a reminder that the 8,000 citizens of Norway House lacked secure, affordable food. This motivated Virginia Muswagon and Ian Maxwell to start Life Water Gardens. As co-managers, they tend a prefabricated container outfitted for growing lettuces, kale, pak choi, and herbs hydroponically year-round.
“At first, I was curious about planting seeds into rockwool that felt like firm candy floss,” recalls Muswagon, “and I was surprised by the microscopic size of mint seeds.” Ever resourceful, she bent a drinking straw into a tiny shovel for planting three to five mint seeds into each nesting cube. Those rookie days have now evolved into the routine harvesting of 450 herbs and greens plants each week.
The local hospital and school have been converted into customers by the consistent quality of the produce. Flame-colored lettuces for burgers and salads sell like “Wildfire” (which is the lettuce mix’s name). Learn more about Life Water Gardens.
Tidal 9 Fisheries
North Haven, Maine
When Karen Cooper saw a friend eating seaweed salad a few years ago, it seemed pretty unappetizing. Then she tried it and found it to be quite tasty; she had no idea that she’d grow it one day.
“I can’t grow anything, but if it has to do with the ocean, I can probably do it,” says Karen Cooper.
Lobster fishing in Maine’s Penobscot Bay has been Cooper’s livelihood for 30 years (she’s a 3rd-generation lobsterman, fishing up to 200 traps). She loves it: “It’s the fun of not knowing. You go out every day and find out if you set the traps in the right place. Are they full of lobsters or not?”
Looking to make some off-season money, Cooper became curious about seaweed and got an aquaculture lease to harvest and sell kelp. This required almost no capital investment (only the cost of the chain and line) and logistically was a perfect fit. Lobstering runs from June through October; kelp is seeded in November and harvested in May. “So, we are working on the water all year ’round,” she notes.
The kelp thrived: The microscopic seeds looked like slime for weeks but grew many feet long. Today, she harvests and sells 15,000 pounds of kelp annually. This successful side venture spurred Cooper to start another one—harvesting sea salt and selling it in jars at local gift shops. This is all a reflection of the diversification that will be required of the next generation of lobstermen—including her nephew, who helps to harvest the kelp: “He loves lobster fishing,” Cooper says, “but it’s not going to be around forever.” Enjoy this short film about Karen Cooper.
Gill Family Orchards
Kelowna, British Columbia
In 2018, Mani Gill abandoned a safe job—a 10-year banking career—to return to his family’s farmer roots.
“This is what I was meant to do,” says Mani of Gill Family Orchards. “It’s not work—it’s a passion.”
This work ethic comes naturally from his parents, who immigrated from India’s Punjab region to the Okanagan Valley in the 1980s to work as laborers. As a young teenager, Gill recalls, he picked cherries, changed water pivots, and drove a tractor under the blazing sun near Osoyoos, which—with its desertlike geography—is often cited as the hottest place in Canada. Before long, his parents had acquired their own acreage, moving 80 miles north to the cooler temperatures of Kelowna.
Today, Gill and his brother Jasmeet manage Gill Family Orchards, over 100 acres of vineyards and orchards. None of them expected the unusual heat dome of 2021 that settled over the valley in late June, with temperatures that spiked to 45°C (113°F) for several days.
This nature-borne oven meant that the early-maturing cherry varieties of some growers basically became baked on the trees and rendered unmarketable. Fortunately, the Gill family was able to employ microjet sprinklers at ground level to keep their orchards cooled. Their ‘Lapins’ and ‘Staccato’ cherry varieties were saved, although at smaller-than-usual sizes. Another beneficial factor was that the orchards are planted in an east–west direction, which meant that the tree canopies protected the maturing fruit.
“Climate change is happening,” comments Gill. “We’ve never seen these temperatures in Kelowna before.” Thanks to access to irrigation water, the Gill family has managed to sustain their orchards and vineyards. “Every year, there’s something new to face, whether it’s frost or heat. It’s part of the business,” observes Gill. “Next year, we’ll be prepared.” Rather than counting work hours, he and his wife Kamal are now counting their blessings while raising their two children.
Askin Land and Livestock
When trying to get a foothold in the ranching business as a recent college graduate, Sage Askin had plenty of knowledge (a degree in rangeland ecology and watershed management, plus five minors: forestry, reclamation and restoration ecology, agro-ecology, soil science, and wildlife and fisheries biology) and years of experience in raising steers and working on a ranch. He had very few assets, though—just $1,000 from his last paycheck, a paid-for pickup, a trailer, and a horse.
“The dream didn’t change, but the road has not been the way that I’d envisioned,” says Sage Askin.
He tried to obtain a revolving line of credit to buy land. “With no equity, they looked at me as if I were crazy when I asked for $300,000 to follow my dream,” says Askin. Soaring land prices stood in the way. “Just 10 or 20 years ago, you could still buy land with the crop produced. No longer is this the case, with ag land in America often two or three times its ‘productive value,’” observes Askin.
Instead of giving up on ranching, Askin decided to run an ad saying “Ranch lease wanted—Young aspiring rancher” in a local newspaper. Today, Sage and Faith Askin run a diversified operation on 75,000 acres of leased land: They offer custom grazing and run three bands of sheep on seven different ranches.
They and 13 employees follow an intensive regenerative adaptive grazing program, with cattle moved every 1 to 3 days in springtime and some pastures rested for the entire year. “We can make the soil better, which makes the plants better, which benefits us all,” notes Askin, who offers this advice to young ranchers: “Network every chance that you get—and don’t be afraid to take the plunge and do something different.” Learn more about Askin Land and Livestock!
Saunders Family Farm & Vineyard
Purchased by her parents in the mid-1960s, their certified-organic, 12-acre vineyard is a work in progress by regenerative standards. As Ann-Marie Sanders explains, many conventional agricultural practices use pesticides to kill unwanted weeds or insects, while regenerative practices are preservationist (not interventionist). “This is a way of harnessing biology rather than using reductive chemistry,” notes Saunders. “It feels experimental in some senses, but it’s a way to keep everything alive.”
“Do no harm, embrace life” is the motto of Ann-Marie Saunders of Saunders Farm and Vineyard.
For example, grapevines, brush, and leaves are shredded and composted for a year. Once in spring and once in fall, the compost is bagged and placed in a 300-gallon brewer, where it is then aerated for a day along with vermicompost and water. Brimming with life-giving microbes, the steeped compost tea is then sprayed onto the soil. For further soil enrichment, Muscovy duck manure is sourced from the neighbor’s farm.
To aid in soil regeneration, the vineyard walkways are planted with clay-busting daikon radishes, nitrogen-
fixing clovers, and pollinator-attracting buckwheat. Along with vegetation such as naturally wild carrots, these plants are allowed to grow to waist height before being mown down about twice annually. What looks to be a messy plant menagerie is—upon closer inspection—buzzing with beneficial insects, some of which eat into the populations of leaf-sucking bugs such as aphids, leafhoppers, and mites.
“Another reason to keep the plant mixture long is to prevent soil erosion,” reports Saunders. “After heavy rains, we have no runoff, no puddles.”
Come fall, their hand-harvested grapes are sought by local winemakers who value their ecological methods. Incessant rains can diminish yields, but it’s the winemakers who ultimately determine how a vintage fares. Learn more about regenerative farming.
Meet five more farmers who were profiled in the 2022 issue of The Old Farmer’s Almanac!
Ayers Brook Goat Dairy
Farmers at Ayers Brook Goat Dairy have learned the hard way to goat-proof everything—light switches, doorknobs, the grain auger! “Goats are curious by nature. They can’t resist the opportunity to fiddle with something. If you look away for 5 seconds, you will have a cleanup project on your hands that will consume your entire afternoon,” says owner Miles Hooper.
Daryll Breau of Vermont’s Ayers Brook Goat Dairy. Hanging out with a nubian kid goat!
A herd of 1,000 does produces milk for Vermont Creamery and a local producer of goat’s milk caramel sauce, among other customers. “It’s a marginal business. A lot of things have to go right for you to get paid,” notes Hooper. Producing high-quality milk is a priority. “Our contribution to the industry is not the amount of milk that we put in the bulk tank, but the genetic work we do to create healthier, more efficient animals,” Hooper explains. “The more protein—particularly casein—that we have in our goat’s milk, the better the conversion factor from pounds of milk to cheese.”
With a healthier profit margin, the farmers preserve both their livelihood and the environment. Recently, Hooper purchased a piece of land slated for development and preserved it for agriculture through a conservation easement with the Vermont Land Trust. In 2014, he added solar panels to a 14,000-square-foot barn, allowing the 266-acre farm to be run completely on solar electricity.
Mile Hooper with his kids, both goat and human! It’s indeed a family affair.
Years ago, Hooper visited goat farmers in rural France who somehow found time for an unrushed midday meal. Living by this example, Hooper intends to show his children that farming doesn’t necessarily mean nonstop labor: “We are trying to keep the farm fun and lighthearted enough that they might actually be inclined to take it on.”
Will it pop? That question gave the owners of Baldwin Farms sleepless nights just before their first harvest of popcorn in 2017. “We were very nervous that we would harvest it at the wrong moisture level,” recalls Cindy Baldwin.
The Baldwin Family and their outstanding gourmet Papa Baldy’s Popcorn.
When an ear of corn was pulled off the stalk, put into a paper bag, and placed in a microwave oven, nothing popped— but the house filled with smoke from the still damp, overheated cob.The waiting game began as the kernels dried a few more days in the field.
During the next test, cobs popped in the microwave, in a stovetop pot, and in an air popper. “We all did a high five—and then we ate it,” smiles Cindy. With that, Cindy, husband Dwight, son Adam, and Adam’s wife Kim became the niche marketers of Papa Baldy’s Popcorn.
For four decades, wheat, field corn, and soybeans have been the Baldwins’ only crops, as the farm increased to several thousand acres. Then crop prices began to fall. “When commodity prices go down, if you have more acres, you have a tendency to lose more money,” Dwight notes.
After a meeting with popcorn breeders, the family decided to try ‘Jumbo Mushroom’ popcorn and devoted a 5-acre field to it. Dwight took on sales, offering free samples at countless sales venues.
Today, the Baldwins have a diverse mix of retail customers. Yields aren’t nearly as high as they are for field corn, but popcorn’s selling price is much higher.
The farm allocated an additional 3 acres to popcorn in 2018, and the family is experimenting with poppable sorghum. “We had a good first year, and we are hoping for a good second year,” says Dwight. “We’re just going to see where this goes.”
Farmer Dwight Baldwin (known as Papa by his grandchildren) of the Baldwin family-owned farm in Kansas.
Santa Cruz Farm
Santa Cruz, New Mexico
At Santa Cruz Farm, 72 varieties of organic produce grow on just 3½ acres. “It’s a beautiful, small, diverse farm. I farm the same land that my ancestors farmed 400 years ago, basically using the same techniques,” says owner Don Bustos.
Don Bustos farms in the village of Santa Cruz in northern New Mexico on land his family has owned for more than three centuries.
As a child, Bustos could often be found behind a mule, plowing for his grandfather on the family’s farm. Over time, the property became overgrown. In the 1970s, Bustos began converting his farm from 100 acres of row crops to 3.5 acres of year-round organic production with more than 70 varieties of fruits and vegetables. In 2015 he was the recipient of one of five James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards, which recognize “who influence how, why and what we eat.”
The tiny farm is a four-man operation: Bustos and two employees work the land, and his nephew handles sales at six local farmers’ markets, all within 25 miles. “We have a little bit of wholesale here and there, but direct sales seem to be more profitable for us,” reports Bustos. Customers know that Santa Cruz Farm is the only place to find locally grown blackberries and strawberries— and cucumbers off-season.
Success stems from tried-and-true practices paired with cautious, lowcost innovations. “Being a small farm, we are very risk-averse,” notes Bustos. “But small investments add up to big profits, if done correctly.” High tunnels were added to extend the growing season. Switching to a root-zone heating system saved money; the heating bill for the small greenhouse, once $750 a month, is now just pennies a day. “This is what allows us to grow greens in the middle of the winter,” says Bustos. He is passionate about training beginning farmers: “My philosophy is not to grow the farm, but to grow more people to farm. It’s not about just one person. It’s about the whole community flourishing.” His advice: Go all in. “If you approach farming as a full-time job, you will be successful. But if you try to farm and do something else on the side, then you marginalize your chances.”
Fresh Future Farm
North Charleston, South Carolina
When Germaine Jenkins and her children lived in an apartment building, she promised them that they’d have a garden someday. When she moved to the Low Country to attend culinary school and became a homeowner, she kept her word.
Germaine Jenkins cultivates healthy eating for underserved communities—and grows gardeners!
The first step was digging up and giving away the azaleas in the front yard. In their place, she planted blueberries, orange trees, and sweet potatoes, and she kept chickens in the back for egg production and manure. Curious kids riding by on bikes would ask, “Is this a farm?”
The question was prescient. Jenkins soon convinced North Charleston city officials to lease her a .81-acre vacant lot. She marked its boundaries with fruit trees and, over time, it became Fresh Future Farm. “Slowly, we built up the farm,” she recalls.
Today, the farm is the source of an astounding variety of the freshest, most nutritious produce that some locals have ever had. Fresh eggs come from the farm’s chickens; compost, from garden waste; mulch, from cardboard boxes donated by a local business; the store building, from the owner of a rental car company who no longer needed it. The five employees who manage the store and field are paid through donations and store revenue. Volunteers, ages 15 to 73, prepare the fields, plant, and harvest. “Everyone who works here either volunteered, interned, or shopped here for months before they got the job,” reports Jenkins.
Families, school kids, and tourists visit the farm and learn about its sustainable ways, like capturing rainwater and keeping bees for pollination. Jenkins plans an online class on “agricultural entrepreneurship”: “It will show the basics, so that the next person who does this skips all of the mistakes that I made. We don’t just want to grow food. We want to grow gardeners!
The Houweling Group
Delta, British Columbia
Gone are the days when flakelike tomato seeds are planted in the nesting cavities of an egg carton—at least for Ruben Houweling who is the propagation manager for The Houweling Group, a tomato grower in British Columbia which specializes in one business—greenhouse tomatoes.
Proprietor Casey Houweling transformed his father’s farm into one of the top tomato greenhouse growers in the world.
He has fine-tuned a process that takes Dutch seeds to 20-inch transplants for commercial growers to buy in 6 weeks. The Houweling Group, run by Ruben’s uncle Casey Houweling, produces seedling tomato plants for about half of the commercial greenhouses on the western coast of the U.S. and Canada! These plants produce the tomatoes that are sold in many grocery stores. “To plant a seed and plant a crop is to believe in tomorrow,” says Ruben.
Each seed is deposited into a plug to settle in for 2 weeks. Then, workers graft a fruiting seedling to a rootstock seedling. This new plant goes into a humidity chamber for a week for the graft to fuse. The grafted seedling is then planted into a 4-inch cube of rock wool, an inert substrate. One week later, these cubes are placed in a greenhouse nursery to be nurtured by frequent doses of fertilized water. When the first flowers appear, the transplants are shipped to the growers.
Despite the assistance of state-of- the-art lighting and irrigation, the greenhouse is in tune with each season’s climatic variations. Says Houweling: “Especially through the fall, winter, and spring, we are aware of available light and the angle of the Sun. We still need to harvest as much free solar energy as possible.”
Houweling reports that they plan to expand the seedling service in the near future, another example of the current high-density trend in agriculture to produce more on less land, while protecting plants from the harshest elements of weather.
National Farmers’ Day
Did you know that October 12 is National Farmers’ Day? This is an opportunity to honor hardworking farmers throughout American history. Let’s show farmers some love. See how!